Slate’s Explainer asks, Do debates in the Senate ever change a senator’s mind?
Yes. Members of Congress have occasionally acknowledged changing their minds during floor debate, although most of those frank admissions came before the modern stigma against flip-flopping. Staunch environmentalist Edmund Muskie, for example, decided to support funding for a nuclear reactor in 1975 after listening to a floor speech by John Pastore of Rhode Island. Speeches about obscure bills tend to have greater effect, because members of Congress may have weakly held views based solely on party affiliation or instructions. During an extraordinary four-day debate in 1960, Sens. Paul Douglas of Illinois and Wayne Morse of Oregon killed a bill involving private access to state-developed water sources. Although the bill sailed through committee with unanimous approval and no debate, Douglas and Morse successfully tarred it on the floor as an unprecedented giveaway of public water to private and corporate landowners. The abrupt change in a large number of votes suggests many senators didn’t fully understand what they had been supporting until Douglas and Morse explained it to them. It’s rare, if not unprecedented, for a senator to change his or her position on a major issue like gun control after hearing a single floor speech.
How to make debate in the House matter is a question we’ve batted around before—see yesterday or two years ago. There are a few issues here. Firstly, if the final vote result isn’t in question and there is no chance of anyone changing their vote and there is even little chance of anything about the legislation changing, debates are more easily ignored by the press gallery. And if it’s unclear how seriously the participants take the proceedings and the forum, it is all the more difficult to view the proceedings as consequential. It would, for instance, help some if the Finance Minister were delivering his fall economic update from his seat in the House, instead of appearing before various chamber of commerce luncheons. Or if the Prime Minister periodically deigned to deliver a speech in the chamber we have theoretically constructed for such purposes.
I can think of a few times in the last six years that the proceedings of the House have been a point of focus: the Prime Minister’s motion on the Quebecois nation and the resulting debate, the long-gun registry vote in 2010, the vote on Motion 312 and the vote on the transgendered-rights bill (and, in different ways, the NDP filibuster of back-to-work legislation for Canada Post and the voting marathons on last year’s two omnibus budget bills). Whether or not any MP changed his or her mind based on what was said in the House, the proceedings seemed to be of identifiable and legitimate intrigue.
The great sickness that drains the life out of our democracy is the rote. We require some structure and predictability—we should not aim for chaos—but if we are to have a House of Commons, we should hope that it periodically be somewhat interesting. That it seem consequential.